A small plot of land in the middle of the city, Victoria Memorial Square Park is more than a shady spot for lunch or a place to play — it has a sombre past as the site of Toronto’s oldest European burial ground.
“There are hundreds of graves that go unnoticed on a daily basis,” says Ewan Wardle, the program officer at Fort York.
The greenspace near Bathurst and Front Streets is where Toronto’s early British settlers were laid to rest, and the bodies are still there. They are buried in shallow graves under the grass, which used to be a part of the Fort York military grounds nearby.
“There would be dozens of bodies there from the War of 1812,” says Wardle. “Toronto was a hospital depot during the conflict, and during some months of the war, you would have had regular interments — regular burials — as those who were brought to the hospital perished from their wounds.”
In peacetime, the men stationed at Fort York also liked to boat on Lake Ontario, and some of them died in accidents or drowned.
“These were young men, they wouldn’t have been married, they didn’t have any families here, but they remained here after their regiment went back to the United Kingdom,” explains Wardle.
Soldiers aren’t the only people buried in the park. For 70 years, from the 1790s to the 1860s, local Torontonians were laid to rest on the grounds.
The first person buried there was the infant daughter of Lt. Gov. John Graves Simcoe, the founder of the city we now know as Toronto. His daughter Katherine is joined by hundreds of others who remain in graves only a few feet under the earth. Wardle warns the graves are shallow by current standards, so dog owners shouldn’t let their pets dig too deeply when they’re in the park.
“They may find something they don’t intend to find,” he says.
Concerned pet owners should keep their dogs on the outside of the paths the run along the park, forming a rectangle. Anything inside the rectangle is where the remains are buried.
Though many who use the park have no idea of its history, there is a monument to the War of 1812 in the centre of the site, and there are some tombstones that go unnoticed. Wardle adds that it was not uncommon for communities to remove gravestones as a settlement grew and the land was needed for something else.
Heritage Toronto has also put up plaques explaining the history of the cemetery, and the challenges facing families in the early days of the city.
On a tour of the site, Camille Begin, the plaques and markers coordinator for Heritage Toronto, pointed out the tombstone of a four-month-old baby named Elizabeth Francis, who was the daughter of a major stationed at Fort York.
“Although this was a military burial ground some civilians were buried here. Especially civilians of family members at Fort York,” says Begin, adding that the child’s early death is indicative of the high infant mortality rates at the time.
When it was an active cemetery, the land was in a rural location, says Wardle. The unsecured military reserve area went all the way to what we now know as Blue Jays Way. It was heavily wooded, and in the 1820s, cows would often be found grazing in the area and disturbing the graves.
It wasn’t until the military later sold the land to the city that the neighbourhood around it started to develop.
Click through below to see historical images of Fort York from the City of Toronto Archives.